'Go to the morgue and count the bodies," the hard-boiled tabloid editor growls at the hungry young reporter. His point -- meant to be both morbid and inspirational -- is that everything between birth and death is "how you tell the story."
Telling the story is the giddy joy of "Lucky Guy," Nora Ephron's raucous and moving fact-based fiction, starring the spectacularly protean Tom Hanks, about the rise and fall and rise and death of superstar New York street columnist Mike McAlary.
In lesser hands, the body count behind George C. Wolfe's exhilarating production could drag the whole fragile construction into deep mourning. We not only have the 1998 cancer death of Mc-
Alary at 41, but Ephron's cancer death in June at 71 and, in the heart of her smart and snappy play, the critical condition of the thing being celebrated -- newspapers. Even the 1995 death of Newsday's New York paper, where many of these characters begin their self-referential tale, is part of the story.
Everyone around in the heyday of New York's tabloid wars, 1985-1998, will surely fight about the details -- not just the facts and the mythmaking, but why this one got included and that one left out. That's fair. Almost from the start of the fast-moving two hours, McAlary and his Greek chorus of newsroom buddies are jockeying for position as narrator as they talk directly to us.
At the center is Hanks, Ephron's longtime movie muse. Not onstage since the late '70s, Hanks brings all his cumulative comforting trustworthiness. This is invaluable, because Ephron does not sugarcoat too many of Mc-Alary's uglier qualities.
Hanks, suitably transformed by McAlary's trademark mouse-brown mustache and bristly hair, begins the reporter's ascent with the self-delight of the kid in a grown-up body in "Big." Soon, his head gets too big. Then, as a libel case, a car accident and cancer eat away at him, his clothes get too big.
McAlary was heroic when he left a chemo treatment to cover the police abuse of Abner Louima all the way to a Pulitzer Prize. But McAlary is also reckless, self-aggrandizing and, without an enormously endearing actor in the role, very likely unlovable.
Maura Tierney does long-suffering with style as McAlary's neglected and supportive wife. Except for Deirdre Lovejoy as a lone woman reporter and as Debby Krenek (then Daily News editor, now Newsday's editorial director and senior vice president of digital media), this is journalism as a hard-drinking, competitive Irish boys' club.
As the only black member of the group, Courtney B. Vance has a punchy sardonic magnetism, as does Peter Gerety as the tough-talking older editor with the soft insides. Juggling the fast-talking chronicles are many recognizable bylines -- Jim Dwyer (Michael Gaston), Michael Daly (Peter Scolari) and Bob Drury (Danny Mastrogiorgio).
Wolfe and a laser-eyed creative team take control of our gaze with the rhythm and allure of a noir movie. David Rockwell's brilliantly inventive, sleek black-and-white sets make headline projections and sliding furniture look new again. Desks are seldom out of sight for these workaholics, even when they're at the bars.
In "Imaginary Friends," Ephron's grossly underrated 2002 Broadway play about Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, Hellman says, "We're all just stories. The question is, who gets to tell them." How lucky, if that's not too paradoxical a word, that Ephron got to tell this one.
WHAT "Lucky Guy"
WHERE Broadhurst Theatre,235 W. 44th St.